Burlington Country Club's Lesser took
a few leaps before turning to golf
By Nate Oxman
By the look of the smile creeping across Craig Lesser’s face, it’s clear he has pondered this before.
Sitting in the audience at one of the hundreds of shows the South Jersey resident was once the star of, Lesser can see himself as a “plant,” heckling high-divers until the performers and crowd members coax him into climbing the ladder and diving off the board during the comedy portion of the show.
Lesser recalls attempting, but ultimately failing, to play the role of the “plant” during his high-diving heyday more than 30 years ago. His athletic build and youthful appearance didn’t fool too many.
But now, at 53 years old, and maybe a tad shy to don the Speedo he has since swapped for golf slacks, Lesser could be the perfect “plant.”
“I could be sitting in the audience and heckling the divers,” says Lesser, while sitting in the clubhouse at Burlington Country Club, where he works as an assistant golf professional. “‘Hey, Smith! You’re all washed up!’ You know? I could be believable as a comedian and with my athletic ability, I could do my stunts. You have to do these fake falls and this clown diving. So yeah, the temptation is there. It’s a glamorous life on the road.”
It was a life Lesser reveled in for seven years, turning a little white lie into an Acapulco Cliff Diving championship and a Guinness World Record, while traveling around the world before returning to Willingboro, N.J.
Lesser’s first leap
Zel Lesser couldn’t find her 4-year-old son anywhere. She took a look up from her crossword puzzle and little Craig was gone. Frantically, Zel gathered a search party to scour the pool area for her little boy.
Although nearly 50 years have passed by, Lesser retells the story so vividly because he had a bird’s eye view of it all.
“And she’s looking and looking and nobody can find me because they’re not looking up,“ says Lesser. “And I sort of see them looking and I’m thinking, ‘What’s everybody looking for?’”
Lesser had climbed the 3-meter diving board.
“She notices me and she’s like, ‘Oh my god! Get down from there right now!’
Lesser obliged. But instead of walking across the board and climbing back down, he jumped.
“I guess that was where they realized that I was a little bit on the fearless side,” says Lesser.
“Sure, I can dive”
Craig Lesser wasn’t sure where his life was headed.
After an uninspired year at Tennessee Wesleyan College, Lesser left school and returned to Willingboro. While working at Ski Mountain in Pine Hill, N.J. he ran into a man wearing a USA High Dive team jacket. He struck up a conversation, telling the man that he had a background in diving.
Technically, that was true.
While baseball dominated the summers of South Jersey kids in the 60s and 70s, swimming was a major summer attraction as well. The 10 elementary schools in the area each had their own pools, which in turn had their own swim teams.
“I started swimming and at like 7 or 8 years old you only had to swim one length of the pool, but at some age they moved it up to two lengths,“ says Lesser. “Well, I didn’t like that, so I saw the divers diving in and just swimming to the side and I said, ‘OK, I’ll be a diver.’ I took to it and I was on the traveling team and I really don’t even remember how good I did. I think I usually placed like first or second. But they didn’t have it as a high school sport and so it was just kind of a summer hobby.”
The little white lie got Lesser an audition, where, at age 19, he was hired and sent to Wildwood, N.J. to join the “Aqua Circus” for the summer of 1977.
But Lesser didn’t exactly dazzle audiences. Instead, he routinely doused them, and even some fellow performers, after he struggled to successfully land dives that admittedly were too difficult to do.
“I wasn’t as good as promised,” says Lesser. “I was diving into an old pool that was only 8 feet deep. They had me doing dives that I really couldn’t do off the 3-meter springboard and I was landing on my side and on my back. They used to have girls on surfboards doing patterns in between dives. And you would dive in between these surfboards like the old Esther Williams diving shows. And I was getting the girls all wet with my splashes and their makeup is running. And I was getting people in the audience wet.”
Luckily, a more acrobatic diver up at Steel Pier in Atlantic City was having a little more success, diving through the 25-foot tall pier into the Atlantic and disappearing out of sight.
“The way the bleachers were at Steel Pier the audience couldn’t see you go into the water,” says Lesser. “The water was too far below. So they couldn’t see me splash. It was a perfect fit.”
Lesser convinced his boss, Norma Maxwell, to orchestrate a switch, sending him up to Steel Pier and the acrobatic diver down to Wildwood. The move made him part of a show that included the famous high-diving horse, and, with a future career in diving coming into focus, motivated him more than ever.
That summer Lesser met Tony Chmiel, then the head diving coach at Temple University, who invited him to train with the team in McGonigle Hall during the school year.
So Lesser spent his winter mornings working at a gas station on Route 130 near the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge and his afternoons training at Temple, improving measurably in preparation for his second season.
To kick-off the summer of ‘78, Lesser decided to head down to the swimming hall of fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. for the World Diving Championships. Although he wasn’t invited to perform, Lesser figured he would go down to get his early-season assignment from Maxwell.
It turned out he would get much more.
“That is my premier show and you are not a premier diver”
“So my buddy and I go down there and we watch the high diving contest and I do a little diving outside the competition,” recalls Lesser. “And the president of the company [Maxwell], she has 40 of her divers there and it’s really hectic. It’s like having a PGA Tour event in town and you’re a local pro and you want to get two words in with Tim Finchem.”
“So I waited for the most opportune moment and since I’m from South Jersey, I said, ‘Norma, I would like to dive at Great Adventure, which was Six Flags, her flagship diving show at the time,” continues Lesser. “She said, ‘Craig, you’re a great kid, but that is my premier show and you are not a premier diver.’ Now she doesn’t know that I’ve been working hard all winter at Temple. So I said, ‘Let me get up and show you one dive and if it’s not impressive to you, then whatever.’
Lesser chose to do a spotter dive, which begins with a series of acrobatic somersaults that land the diver back on the diving board before he springs off again into the water for the dive. Lesser taught himself a spotter dive that started with a back flip into the air and back onto the end of the board, and finished with three-and-a-half somersaults into the water.
“So I get Norma Maxwell’s attention for two minutes and I say, ‘Well, let me just do this one dive,’” says Lesser. “And I got up and I did probably the best spotter I had ever done. I came up and I remember when my head broke the surface I wanted to be really low key. So I kind of just said, ‘So what do you think?’ She said, ‘OK, you can go to Great Adventure.’”
Lesser started the season at Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., spent the summer in a park in Cape Cod, and returned to Great Adventure to finish out the fall. He was progressing nicely in the sport, but was looking to take the next step.
Bienvenido a Acapulco
Not only did Maxwell stage professional diving events all over North America, she also owned the rights to the International Cliff Diving Championship in Acapulco, a yearly competition pitting the best divers from the United States against the best divers from Mexico--those who make a living diving off the Acapulco cliffs as a tourist attraction.
Each year Maxwell invited 12 divers to compete for the eight spots on the U.S. team that would take on the Mexicans as part of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Thinking that at the least he would acquire the “Acapulco Cliff Diver” title that would bump up both his résumé and level of pay, Lesser decided to make the trip to Acapulco.
He qualified for the team by a single point, edging out three other rookies and one former cliff diving champion. That earned Lesser a free trip - the four divers who failed to make the team had to pay for their airfare and accommodations - a spot in the competition, a chance to be on TV, and most importantly, a chance to make his mom proud.
“She didn’t tell me she was going to go and she actually bought a ticket and snuck down there,“ says Lesser. “And when I realized I had gotten on the team by one point and everybody is congratulating me, I felt this tap on my shoulder. It was my mom. And this gets me a little choked up because she passed away a few months later, but she was there for it.”
Lesser was selected to dive first in the competition, a position typically met with trepidation as the first diver is more or less a warm-up for the judges. But it was a position Lesser saw as lucky.
“I sort of quickly spun it as, ‘OK, I’ve done well in this position before,’” says Lesser.
“So the competition starts and I go first and I did a really good dive in the first round,” says Lesser. “It turns out that at the end of the first round I was in a three-way tie for first place, which was much better than I could have hoped for. I was tied with another American diver, a friend of mine from East Orange [N.J.] named Chip Humphrey, and one of the Mexican divers--one of their most seasoned veterans - a guy named Ricardo Moreno. So we’re in a three-way tie when the second round starts and I go first.”
From the area on top of the cliffs where the Acapulco divers await their turn, all that can be seen is a diver‘s takeoff. The other divers rely on their ears to judge his performance.
“If you’re sort of following how everyone is doing you kind of listen and you wait to hear that initial thud or kerplunk and then the settling of the water, which sounds like rain,“ says Lesser. “And the longer it rains, the bigger the splash. If you don’t hear anything, it means one of two things. It means he either hit the rocks, which isn’t good, or he didn’t make any splash at all. That’s called a rip entry.”
Lesser dived, his teammates listened, and … silence.
“I did this perfect entry and after they threw out the high and low scores I think I got two 10s and a nine. So knowing that I was already tied for first and now I’ve got this really good score in the second round, that meant that anybody who was behind me who was not tied with me had little to no chance of catching me because I basically just did a perfect dive. … So I come up on the other side and there’s ABC Sports and Al Michaels, from Monday Night Football, and we do an interview and everything.”
“Al Michaels says, ‘Craig, you’re in first place and the math tells us that everybody is going to have a tough time catching you. You’ve almost locked this thing up.’ … So now I’m waiting and waiting for diver after diver. I had to wait for 15 divers in all.
“I would say that that round took at least an hour. So for an hour I’m going through this waiting game and so finally the last guy goes and nobody tops my score. I’m the 1978 Acapulco Cliff Diving Champion.”
Lesser was in shock. After coming to Acapulco hoping not to get hurt, to maybe get his trip paid for, and, for a bonus, to be able to sit down with his friends a few months later and watch it all on TV, Lesser left a world champion.
But more importantly than all that, more meaningful than the $5,000 prize that bought Lesser the ‘78 Datsun 280Z he dreamed of when he was 15, was that he shared the win with his mom.
“She was thrilled about it,” says Lesser. “You think that your mother would be nervous and she’s sitting there and she’s telling everyone around her, ‘That’s my son!’ She was just in her absolute glory, totally enjoying it.”
“That was in December of ‘78,” says Lesser. “We got back to New Jersey in like February of ‘79. A few months later she was having some medical issues and she got diagnosed with cancer and it was pretty serious. By October of ‘79 she passed away. So when I look back on it, it’s a blessing to me that it worked out like it did. I feel really fortunate.”
If Murray Lesser was the stereotypical stern military father, scoffing at his son’s seemingly irrational decisions, Zel Lesser was just the opposite.
“[She was] amazing,” says Lesser. “My parents got divorced so she raised me as a single parent. My dad was a career Navy officer and he was not at all supportive of these things. When I dropped out of college it was such a scar to him because he got his degree. School was important. A career was important. My two brothers were going down that path and I seemed to be this rebel. So he and I didn’t get along that well. But my mother, when I said that I was dropping out of college, she said, ‘Well, I always wanted you to go to school, but if it’s not the right fit for you right now, I understand.’ And when I said, ‘I’m going to get this job diving at Steel Pier,’ she was like, ‘That’s great,’ when a lot of parents would’ve said no.”
“She would come to see me dive on occasion, not a lot because she worked a lot, but she was always so proud,” says Lesser. “And there was always a crowd around her. She would give the play-by-play. And she came down to Acapulco and being down there she wasn’t the slightest bit overprotective. She wasn’t a cautious mom. She trusted me and she just encouraged me and didn’t give me any sense that I had anything to be afraid of.”
Although Lesser finished second when he returned to Acapulco to defend his title in 1979, he did set another significant milestone.
Working in Cape Cod during the spring of ‘78, Lesser was puzzled to see his fellow divers max out after performing one or two dives day.
“That seemed to take it out of them,’ says Lesser. “I realized that I could high dive over and over and over again. I could do 10, 20, 30, and it would have no effect on me. I just seemed to have this endless ability to dive and dive and dive.”
Lesser’s boss in Cape Cod noticed this and suggested that he try to break the world record. He tacked an ABS Sports poster to Lesser‘s bedroom wall, wrote ‘158’ on it to signify the mark needed to break the record, and got the wheels in Lesser’s head turning.
“I would look at that poster all the time,“ says Lesser. “I started thinking, ‘Yeah, I could set the world record.’ I knew the guys who set the old record at 156 and I was like, ‘Maybe I could do that.’”
Then Lesser came down to Great Adventure, home to the highest high dive in a regularly performed show at 92 feet (although it was billed as 100 feet for the show).
“I started doing these 92-footers and they didn’t bother me a bit,“ says Lesser. “I realized that very quickly.”
So in March of 1979, Lesser went down to Sea World in Orlando for the high diving championships with the goal of becoming a world record holder.
“The world record is done by more than one person,” says Lesser. “It’s sort of a competition. The first year I did it we had four divers who set the world record and the one guy who actually gets the best score, gets the most money, but everybody who sets the record is a co-holder. So I think I finished second. I didn’t win, but I was co-holder of the world record. And I did the world record again the next year. I wanted to win because I think the money at the time was like $25,000, but I didn’t win it the second year either and never did another one after that for a variety of reasons. But I did set the record both times.”
That second year in 1980, Lesser was part of a group that set the new world record at 166 feet, a height he says he conquered without an inkling of fear.
“You’re 17 stories up,” says Lesser. “And I told people that if you want to get an idea of what that looks like go to New York City, go to the balcony of a hotel 17 floors up and look out the window and down at the street. It’s high. But to me it didn’t look that high because I had done a lot of high-diving and I had done a lot of training and I had done a lot of mental preparation in my own way.”
“The hardest part of training for the world record that people don’t tell you is the climb,” says Lesser. “You have to climb this 170-foot ladder step by step, rung by rung. You’re out of breath and then you have to do a world record. So the most important thing to me was that I wanted to be in really good physical shape. So I did a lot of running and training so that when I got to the top, I wasn’t breathing heavy.”
Lesser’s winter of training made the leap an easy feat.
“I just trained hard and I got myself into a mental state that I was looking off into the distance a lot, not looking down, not looking up, not saying, ‘Wow, I’ve got a long way to go.’ I was just climbing and thinking of my happy place. So the climb was no problem, doing the world record was no problem. I didn’t get hurt. It was a good experience.”
So what’s next?
“So now I’m a two-time world record holder and I’m an Acapulco Cliff Diving champion. I’m making top money with this company and they’re giving me year-round work and they’re sending me to Sea World, one of a few winter locations, because I’m their top diver.”
That was where Lesser found himself seven years after striking up a conversation with a skier in Pine Hill, during a junction in his life when there really was no clear-cut path to follow.
He found himself at another such juncture at Sea World, when he’d reached the pinnacle of his sport and had a hunch that there was more to accomplish at the Orlando theme park.
“I liked the company Sea World at the time,” says Lesser. “The high dive that I did was part of a water ski big production. Being around water skiers and water skiing, I took it up and got real good, real fast, like I did the diving. So in 1983 at the high point of my diving career I walked away and became a professional water skier at Sea World at the lowest level starting out. And I worked my way up with them to the director of their water ski shows.”
But perhaps more miraculous than the jump from ski lift operator to cliff diving world champion or from cliff diving world champion to professional water skier was Lesser’s next leap.
Craig Lesser gets a desk job?
In 1990, after Anheuser-Busch purchased the Sea World parks, a friend of Lesser’s named Bill Davis, currently the president and chief operating officer of Universal Orlando Resort, asked Lesser to run a new department in the park. And just like that, with a year of college on his résumé, Lesser became the park’s director of business analysis.
Lesser was a success behind a desk, serving in his position for 13 years, during which he also went back to school and earned his degree in statistics from Central Florida University--with a GPA of 3.97 to boot.
But another change was brewing.
“After being a high diver and a water skier - it’s not like I was going though a mid-life crisis - it’s just sitting behind a computer, I kind of got stagnant with my job,” says Lesser. “I got pigeonholed a little bit. I was stuck in a position and Florida is a nice place to visit, but it’s a place where you go to die, not where you go to live.”
So Lesser began planning his next move.
A return to South Jersey
“About two or three years before I left I said, ‘You know? I always wanted to move back to New Jersey where I grew up,” says Lesser. “I didn’t have any family here, but I always loved New Jersey. Whenever I would visit it was this immediate sense of being back home. All my friends are still here. And so in 2003, I made the decision to just walk away from Sea World and my 21 years and basically move back to New Jersey and start over. I didn’t really have any game plan. I had a buddy in Mount Laurel, who said. ‘You can stay here.’ So I moved in with him.”
Lesser’s return to South Jersey found him living a block away from Ramblewood Country Club. On a whim, he went to the club one day and spoke to owner John Goodwin about possible employment.
“I was telling him a little bit about my background and he’s thinking, ‘You’re so over-qualified,’” says Lesser. I told him, ‘I’ll clean golf carts, whatever. I don’t care. I’ve started over in every job I’ve ever done.’ So he decided to hire me and said he could only pay me five or six bucks an hour. I said, ‘Money’s not an issue. I just want to do something different. I want to do something interesting.’”
Lesser was a weekend golfer at the time, who took up the game as a kid, but played only sparingly until high school. Smallish for his age, Lesser looked into playing contact sports like football, basketball, and baseball in junior high, but ultimately decided he couldn’t measure up.
“I can’t tell you how big I was for my age, but I was tiny,” says Lesser. “There was a time when my mom thought, ‘Oh, he’s going to be a midget. He’s not growing.’”
So the summer before he was to enter Kennedy High School, Lesser took up soccer.
“I hadn’t really played any organized soccer, but soccer was something where you could be smaller and still play. So I played on the soccer team and I ended up going to Tennessee Wesleyan College on a soccer scholarship.”
That left the spring season open for another venture.
Golf was only vaguely familiar to Lesser. He and a friend sometimes snuck onto Rancocas Golf Club (then Willingboro Country Club) in the early mornings to play a couple of holes close to the road, close enough so if anybody caught them they could just grab their sticks and run.
“So we played two holes of golf a couple of times and it was another thing that you didn’t have to be big to do. And it was an individual thing like diving so that’s where I kind of excelled,” says Lesser. “So that was my introduction to golf.”
Lesser tried out for the golf team at Kennedy, and although he wasn’t good enough to play in matches, there were no cuts. So Lesser was allowed to practice and play for free.
“Golf would become something I played recreationally throughout my life,” says Lesser. “I enjoyed it.”
In a few months at Ramblewood CC, Lesser was running the golf shop and organizing outings. Then he talked to a friend who advised him there may be an opening on the staff at nearby Burlington Country Club, a private club that might be even more appealing.
“So I came up here one day and walked up and met with Teresa Kane, who is the assistant [professional] here, and kind of gave her my background,” says Lesser. “And just like at Ramblewood and everywhere else they are a little overwhelmed. They’re like, ‘You’ve done all that and you’re still willing to park golf carts and do all that?’ But I didn’t care.”
“I got hired here in September of 2004 and basically have been here since. And I’m not giving myself a position, but I kind of run things here. Mike [Mack] is our head golf professional, but he leaves me to kind of run our golf operations and I’m really good at tournament operations. And I like the golf business. I’ve been in customer service/customer relations/performing since as long as I can remember.”
So that’s where Lesser has settled. For now.
And even though he can sit back and quickly sketch out his return to high diving, there just may be a few more forays in store for Craig Lesser. Odds are no matter what he may choose, he’d succeed. His mother ensured that.
“With diving and then jumping into water skiing and then becoming an analyst with no background and then getting into golf, I’ve never been afraid to try something and start at the bottom and I guess I would say a lot of that is because my mother always showed the confidence in me that, ‘If you want to try something, go try it,’” says Lesser. “And the worst thing that could happen is that you don’t succeed, you figure out what you did wrong, and you try something else. I think I read sometime that Abe Lincoln never got elected to anything until he became president. He failed at every other election. But he stuck with it. Well, the funny thing is I never really failed.”